by Tamara Scully

Wildfires have burned mind-boggling numbers of acres, destroying towns, farms and lives this year. Climate change is implicated in this mass burning: severe droughts, hotter, drier seasons with less rainfall and early snow melt due to warmer winter weather patterns has created a tinderbox. Combined with forest mismanagement, which has left a vast buildup of dead trees on forest floors, any spark was bound to set off a fire. Numerous fires, raging simultaneously, have now burned over five million acres of land and counting.

“These fires have grown explosively under extreme fire weather conditions and in forested stands that are, in many cases, extremely overstocked. Stands of trees have developed on the National Forests following almost a century of fire suppression and several decades of little harvest into tinderboxes with hundreds of trees per acre, in stands and forest types that historically had just a few dozen trees,” Bill Imbergam, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, wrote for The Hill.

Imbergan advocates for utilizing salvageable timber – quickly removing it from the burnt acreage – for lumber and for biomass energy production. Lumber keeps carbon stored long term. Although burning wood biomass releases the carbon, it is an alternative for fossil fuels, and the carbon can be quickly recycled back into forest growth, he argued.

Wood for Clean Energy?

Trees can be burned for heat or utilized to generate electricity. Wood is, to some degree, a renewable resource, as trees can be replanted to replace those lost. Controversy over air pollution from burning wood, the role trees play in carbon sequestration and the manner in which wood is harvested for fuel – clear cutting forests and harvesting tree stands indiscriminately – have hindered the adaptation of wood energy as an alternative energy source worth developing.

According to Forest2Market, the wildfires raging in the West have generated enough energy to create more than 58,000 megawatt hours of electricity. If this energy had been captured and created over time instead of all at once, the amount of electricity generated would have vastly exceeded the energy California generates on a yearly basis, and that amount of electricity could have powered the entire state for decades.

A recent blog entry on the Forest2Market website suggests that the biomass which fueled the fires could have been put to a much better use: “Now, we are not proposing that all of that biomass could – or even should – be used for power generation. Rather, we are saying that a small portion of that resource should be removed from the forest to reduce the intensity of wildfires while being used to beneficially generate renewable electricity and other bio-based products, including biofuels and biochemicals.”

The utilization of low value biomass for clean power, rather than letting it literally add fuel to the ongoing and very real wildfire threat, would be a beneficial way to protect forested land while producing useable energy.

As trees burn, the carbon they’ve sequestered is released into the air where it forms carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gas emissions are the driving force of climate change. Does burning trees to produce electricity make sense?

The National Resources Defense Council has argued that using trees to produce wood pellets – used in large scale power plants to generate electricity – adds to climate woes. The organization argues that biomass companies are clear cutting forests, exposing land to erosion and flooding and destroying mature trees, and contributing to climate change.

Nate Anderson, research forester at the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service, spoke of the need for forest biomass as a feedstock for biochar production as a part of the 2020 USFS Biochar Webinar Series. While biochar is a beneficial soil amendment, renewable energy and carbon sequestration are other benefits of biochar production. Wood biomass in natural forests holds potential to create a complete supply chain which utilizes biomass for feedstocks in numerous markets.

“Biochar fits very nicely in this model of a product that has a lot of different values,” Anderson said. “We also want to be thinking about waste management benefits of biochar systems, renewable energy types – the different types of conversion technologies that produce biochar either as a primary product, co-product or by-product – and then also maintain this big picture on carbon sequestration, not just in the soil, but how the life cycle of the whole biochar system might generate carbon benefits.”

Properly managed forests can supply the biomass needs for many downstream uses while meeting the needs at the landscape level. Forest fire prevention is one of those needs.

The question of properly managing forests to prevent wildfires isn’t only one for the American West. Across the nation, forested land hasn’t been allowed to burn naturally. Dead and downed trees haven’t been removed even as pests such as emerald ash borer and bark beetles have caused massive die-offs.

The question of how best to manage our forests to protect them, how to harvest wood for industry and conservation and how to utilize wood as a source of bioenergy production are all important ones and remain in the forefront of alternative energy strategies.